The recent announcement at Yahoo! about cutting down working from home and getting employees to come into the office seems to have put a virtual cat among several distributed pigeons. It might be that there are a number of remote, disgruntled and disaffected employees who are simmering remotely out there in distant cyber space who are not getting the message about how the business needs to be changed, but this appears to be a very public way to conduct change management.

One thing is sure, it has brought many opinions, fears and prejudices about work out into the open.

First there is the feeling among many who do not or cannot work from home, that all those who do must be ‘tele-shirking’, i.e. not really working but being subject to a thousand and one distractions – was that the doorbell? I’ll just vacuum the hall and make another cup of coffee.

This feeling also pervades many managers; after all, if you can’t see each and every one of the workers, how do you know if they’re really working or not? This may sound a bit old-fashioned shop floor or weaving mill with an overseer or foreman at one end of a line of workers, literally keeping an eye on them as they work. But, a quick glance around most modern offices and business park facilities will show glass-fronted offices for managers and open plan seating areas for ‘the workers’. Plus ca change?

On the flip side there is the understandable fear of remote workers that those in the office get more ‘real’ time and therefore influence with the boss. This might translate into better opportunities for pay rises and promotions for those able to maximise their visibility and more frequently get the ear of their manager.

Surely technology fixed this? After all, those working from home will be connected via the internet right into the heart of the corporate enterprise IT systems, they will most likely have mobile phones and may even have video conferencing, desktop sharing tools and unified communications. They can phone, email, chat, text, video call, collaborate with a whole variety of tools – in or out of the office – as much as they like and with open IP networks pretty cheaply. So much so that one company banned the use of email for internal communications as it seemed like employees were doing it too much.

So why should it really matter where people are?

Past Quocirca research once indicated a fear of loss of organisational culture if people were working too much while mobile or at home, and some commentators think this might be what Yahoo! is trying to address. However, simply bringing a number of individuals who were simmering at home back together is unlikely to stimulate upbeat and innovative water cooler conversations, but more likely a seething cauldron of gripes.

The underlying problem is unlikely to be either one of technology or location, but management. That’s not just the day-to-day operational stuff of goal-setting, nurturing, mentoring, delegating, support, feedback, correction and reward, but also the higher level direction of who we are, why we’re here and what we do.

This does not mean a meaningless buzzword-laden mission statement that people smirk at, but a credible corporate culture that employees can relate to, sign up to or decide is not for them and move out. It can be as simple as “don’t be evil” or as prescriptive as a training program, but either way it has to be consistent, applied from the top of the organisation to the bottom and understood by everyone.

That underpins the relationship with customers, suppliers, partners, peers, subordinates and managers, which then has to be supported by the right operational management tools. This is the crucial bit that makes it all work, or not and this is one area where the development of management skills has been lacking in recent years – especially people, time and process management. Technology can then play a part in supporting that, but only if people are taught how to use it – not the functional aspects they pick up or eventually read from manuals, but how to get the best out of it to perform a specific task.

At one time companies put their staff on courses to develop soft skills, with many of them geared towards some particular technology or communications medium. Time management for using their new Filofaxes; responsive communications e.g. how to answer the phone politely and in under three rings; take ownership of any issues; how to conduct effective meetings (hint: search online for “John Cleese meetings”).

Some may laugh and say this sort of training is no longer relevant to today’s busy workforce, but the inability to control communications overload, collaborate effectively with colleagues, manage remote or distributed workforces seems a little too widespread. Simply throwing more communications tools at employees, or even allowing them to bring their own, is not the answer on its own, but taking them away is not a step in the right direction.